Proceedings: CROSSROADS & BORDERLANDS: Narratives of Intersecting Oppressions: Christopher Bell

“To Act Is to Be Committed”:
AIDS Activism and Identity Politics in an English Graduate Program

“Someone who shouts alone is easily suspect. And that suspicion hurts.” – Pierre Seel

“So it is better to speak
we were never meant to survive” – Audre Lorde

It used to be when people asked me why I did the things I did after receiving a positive HIV diagnosis during the second year of my Masters program – why I shared my diagnosis in a cover story for the school newspaper; why I earnestly talked to classes and student organizations about HIV/AIDS; why I did not contest the Director of Composition’s decision to “relieve me” of my teaching assignment largely as a result of the diagnosis; why I protested this shortsighted decision by leaving the university three months before my degree would have been conferred – I would reply, “It’s because I was stupid.” I don’t think that anymore. I now view my reasoning and thought-processes as much too complex to convey in such a cavalier, throw-away response.
In this paper, I describe some of the episodes occurring prior to my HIV diagnosis, including the salient, precursory account of a fellow student’s death from AIDS. I then discuss my diagnosis and the ensuing series of events that transpired in the English Department. I conclude with an analysis of the overarching experience, examining its personal impact as well as its relevance as a cautionary tale for other graduate students.

* * * * *

It should never be argued that I am the most scholarly individual in the world. My undergraduate grade point average was an undistinguished 2.3 on a 4.0 scale, a 2.7 in my major of English. Clearly, I did not set academia on fire during those four critical years. I was, in retrospect, distracted, expending too much energy on extra-curricular pursuits, e.g., student government and outside reading. Despite this lack of academic prowess, I decided to apply to graduate school because I wanted to continue studying literature: plot development, character depiction, anachronisms, and the like. Thus, I devised a passable personal statement, suffered through the General and Subject Test in Literature GREs, begged three professors for recommendations, and patiently awaited a response. To my surprise, not only did I gain admission to the one university I applied to, I was also provided a fellowship as a bonus. Consequently, after taking a semester off, I began graduate school the following January.

In contrast to my lackluster undergraduate record, I enjoyed some degree of success that first semester. This could probably be attributed to the fact that I actually attended the majority of my classes. I even liked some of them(!), the most engaging being “Theory and Practice of Composition” which prepared me to teach the following semester.

This second semester, on the other hand, proved disastrous. I had a difficult time balancing teaching with coursework; as a result, the latter suffered unreservedly. Perhaps things might have been different if I had felt a connection to my classes. I couldn’t however because most of them were immersed in theory and criticism, and I deemed it disingenuous to apply yet another postmodernist-Lacanian perspective to The Awakening. The whole enterprise struck me as derivative and meretricious. In her novel Fear of Flying, Erica Jong flawlessly captures my sentiment:

I had gone to graduate school because I loved literature, but in graduate school you were not supposed to study literature. You were supposed to study criticism. Some professor wrote a book “proving” that Tom Jones was really a Marxist parable. Some other professor wrote a book “proving” that Tom Jones was really a Christian parable. Some other professor wrote a book “proving” that Tom Jones was really a parable of the Industrial Revolution. You were supposed to keep all the names of the professors and all the theories straight so that you could pass exams on them. Nobody seemed to give a shit about your reading Tom Jones as long as you could reel off the names of the various theories and who invented them [. . .]. Fielding would have been rolling over in his grave. My response was to sleep through as much of it as possible (214-215).

And sleep I did. Given the option of attending my seminars or napping, more often than not, I opted for the latter. Before long, I was mired in a cycle wherein I was depressed because I neglected my classes and neglected my classes because I was depressed. The battery of anti-depressants prescribed by my therapist helped little during this time. What did comfort me was reverting to my undergraduate tendency of exclusively reading what I thought I should be reading, the texts which interested me the most. Accordingly, while my colleagues struggled with Bakhtin, I was engrossed with the metaphor of the train in Anna Karenina.

A few weeks before the end of this second semester, my lack of class attendance was brought to the attention of my boss, the Director of Composition. He called me at home one afternoon to check on me after a colleague had taught my class two days in a row. I assured him my depression was merely a stumbling block and promised an imminent recovery. Despite my optimism, I concluded the semester by taking “incompletes” in my coursework. I did however manage to evaluate papers and assign grades for the class I taught, but not without attracting my boss’s continued concern.
For this reason, I recommitted myself to graduate study the following semester. In addition to finishing my “incompletes” from the previous term, I excelled in my new classes during the first half of the semester. My renewed diligence was interrupted one mild day near the end of spring break. While riding home with a colleague, she asked if I had “heard” about Billy Vance, an English Ph.D. candidate. After acknowledging I had “heard” nothing out of the ordinary, my friend apprised me that Billy was suffering from the final stages of AIDS. Indeed, three days later, Billy died.

When Billy Vance died, I anticipated an apocalypse of sorts in the English Department. Instead, life went on as if nothing had happened. I did not bear witness to a single expression of concern or sympathy over his death. Whether this reticence in mourning Billy was because the department was in a collective state of shock (most of us were unaware of his health status until days, in some cases, hours, prior to his death), or whether it was due to a sense of disdain because he died from AIDS, I’m not sure. All I know is that I wanted some form of acknowledgment to give me closure. I needed to process Billy’s death by talking about it. Since this exchange was not occurring in the English Department, I decided to share my thoughts and memories of Billy with the university’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender student organization, the Triangle Coalition. In summary, the group was surprised to learn that someone on our campus had died from AIDS, and they spent a good portion of that meeting discussing AIDS as it affects college students. As a result of this interchange, I gained some of the closure I needed.

It seems ironic in retrospect that I had to venture outside of the English Department to process Billy’s death. It baffles me how our field of study can spend an illimitable amount of time examining representations of death and human suffering in The Grapes of Wrath, Madame Bovary, “King Lear,” and countless other canonical works, but when confronted with death’s reality in everyday life, all of a sudden we become mute. In his essay The Evidence of Things Not Seen, James Baldwin recounts the story of a friend who died from tuberculosis. Baldwin’s community, the community of the church, does not express sympathy for his friend because he was a gay man who – like so many gay men who die from AIDS – ostensibly died because of his “actions.” The following excerpt from Baldwin’s essay is vividly reminiscent of my sentiments toward the English Department, my community, following Billy Vance’s death:

The [incident] [. . .] haunted me [. . .] in some way, obviously, it haunts me still. I had the feeling, dimly, then, but very vividly later, that he died because he had been rejected by the [. . .] community [. . .] that we had it in our power to bring the light back to his eyes. He was a sinner and he died, therefore, in sin; but, we are all sinners. Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone. But I could not say that, then [. . .].
I was acting, after all, on the moral assumptions I had inherited from the community that had produced me. I had been told to love everybody. Whoever else did not believe this, I did. The way of the transgressor is hard, indeed, but it is hard because the community produces the trangressor in order to renew itself. I am afraid that this mathematic, this inexorability, will last as long as life lasts; and I would not have to risk sounding so grandiose were I not under the necessity of attempting to excavate the meaning of the word community – which, as I have understood it, simply means our endless connection with, and responsibility for, each other (122).

As a member of the English Department community, I was frustrated and appalled by the silence following Billy’s death. Months later, when I became apprised of my own HIV-positive status, my actions would reflect my efforts at combating this silence.

I took a much-needed break that summer. In lieu of enrolling in classes or teaching, I brainstormed thesis topics and devised a Women’s Studies-themed syllabus for the class I was scheduled to teach that fall. When the semester began, I attended classes and worked on preliminary thesis research. In preparation for doctoral study at another university, I signed up to retake both GREs and requested Ph.D. applications from several choice schools. Due to a lingering malaise, my doctor at the Student Health Center suggested I be tested for HIV antibodies. On the second Wednesday in October, I received a positive HIV diagnosis.

Twenty minutes after receiving this diagnosis, I inadvertently encountered the president of the Triangle Coalition. Remembering the sense of closure I felt when discussing Billy Vance’s death with this group, I asked her if I could share my diagnosis at their next meeting. She agreed this would be beneficial for all parties involved. A few days later, I was in the Women’s Center preparing for class when the editor of the school newspaper approached me. She explained that she was writing an article about college students’ attitudes towards AIDS and asked me for a quote. She had heard me speak about Billy to the Triangle Coalition earlier that spring and also knew I had integrated an AIDS component in my previous Composition class. As she was unaware of my positive status, I viewed this as an incredibly ironic opportunity. For this reason, I apprised the editor of my recent diagnosis, and expressed my willingness to discuss it in the newspaper. As a result, I was interviewed for an article which became the cover story of the newspaper’s Homecoming issue to be published later that week, nine days after my diagnosis.

Instead of reading about my HIV-positive status in the school newspaper, I preferred my close friends hear of it from me. With this in mind, I devoted the three days between the newspaper interview and its publication to a series of conversations apprising my friends of the situation. One of these individuals was the Director of Composition. While he expressed concern about my health, he was alarmed with the effect my “coming out” in the paper might have on my students. Suggesting I had enough to contend with and would be better served without the additional responsibility of teaching, my boss advised me to take the remainder of the semester off. In lieu of teaching, I was expected to assist in the Composition office, a form of desk duty. Because I respected this individual and did not, at the time, wish to consider his line of thinking as discriminatory, I abided by his decision.

The newspaper was published to great fanfare. I received an immeasurable amount of support from various members of the campus community, most notably in the form of invitations to present experiential-based AIDS programs for several classes and student organizations. In the weeks following the newspaper’s publication, I had the opportunity to process my boss’s decision which I could clearly see was specious. At the end of the semester, I attended a meeting with him wherein I was given permission to teach the following semester, but only with the stipulation that I teach an “approved” syllabus, one he would devise for me. In essence, I had to decide if I wanted to continue in a graduate program that prides itself on granting its students teaching autonomy, yet asks me to accept differential treatment. It took me less than a minute to come to a decision. In addition to declining the offer, I chose not to enroll in classes the following semester, effectively terminating my relationship with the English Department and, by extension, the university.

* * * * *

In retrospect, my experience at the university was a particularly heuristic one in terms of my personal identity development. There I was at the time of my HIV diagnosis: a black gay man teaching a Women’s Studies-themed class. This seems to be the sort of diversity higher education in the late 20th/early 21st century strives for. Nevertheless, my teaching duties were relieved because I added the tenet of HIV-positive not to my curriculum, but to my identity. This puzzles me, especially considering I had integrated an AIDS component in the previous class I taught. The dynamic is peculiar: I could talk about HIV from a theoretical perspective, but I could not teach as an HIV-positive person.

Perhaps I might have understood my boss’s decision if I had decided to abandon the Women’s Studies syllabus and teach a singular-focused HIV-related one. But I made no intimations toward this. I simply wanted to continue teaching the class I had begun. In its adopted statement on graduate students, the Modern Language Association asserts, “Graduate students’ freedom of inquiry is necessarily qualified by their still being learners in the profession; nonetheless, their faculty mentors should afford them latitude and respect as they decide how they will engage in teaching [. . .]” (744). Based on my experience, particularly the condition that I could only teach an “approved” syllabus, I do not believe I was afforded this latitude and respect.

Moreover, Anthony D’Augelli, professor of human development at Penn State notes, “One of the espoused values of higher education is to advance personal intellectual development while simultaneously developing a broader sense of personal responsibility to others” (214). In keeping with D’Augelli’s view, it was essential for me to engage the campus community, if only temporarily, in a series of discussions about HIV/AIDS. Despite this belief, the message I received from the English Department was that I should be silent. Ultimately, this ideology reminds me of the propaganda films of the 1950’s wherein elementary school children were instructed to “duck and cover” should they see the flash from a nuclear explosion – as if cowering in fear was going to protect them from the radioactive fall-out. To reiterate, my goal was to stimulate discussion about a disease that people have historically been ashamed and/or afraid to talk about. It is unfortunate this attempt was encouraged by virtually every facet of the campus community except the English Department.

In essence, while I wish things had been brought to a more satisfying conclusion in the English Department, I harbor no regrets for the decisions I made. I did, quite simply, what I know should have been done. Likewise, in The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin contends, “People find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger” (9). By virtue of having lived through this experience, I know what it means to be in danger, and I accept this risk as a result of my choice to link my academic pursuits to my commitment to social justice. I hope that other graduate students who feel as strongly as I would be willing to do the same.

* * * * *

It has been said that people enjoy happy endings. Here’s mine: One month after departing from the university, I received a letter from the Provost. This missive arrived unexpectedly; thus, I curiously tore open the envelope and drew out the letter. The first word read: “Congratulations.” I read on. In short, one of the students who was in the class in which my teaching duties were “relieved” had read the article in the school newspaper. She had also heard me speak about AIDS to a Freshman Experience class. This student was struck by my efforts and wrote a letter nominating me for the university’s Human Rights Award. I won the award, and returned to the university six weeks after my departure to accept it. It seems fitting that I received this honor because although the university confers several hundred Masters degrees each year, only one Human Rights Award is given. All things considered, I like to think I earned it.


Baldwin, James. The Evidence of Things Not Seen. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1985.

---. The Fire Next Time. New York: Vintage, 1962.

D’Augelli, Anthony. “Teaching Lesbian and Gay Development.” Culture and Ideology in Higher Education: Advancing a Cultural Agenda. Ed. William G. Tierney. Praeger: New York, 1991. 213-233.

Jong, Erica. Fear of Flying. New York: Plume, 1973.

Lorde, Audre. “A Litany for Survival.” The Black Unicorn. New York: Norton, 1978. 31-32.

Modern Language Association of America. “Statement on Graduate Students.” PMLA 114 (2001): 742-746.

Seel, Pierre. I, Pierre Seel, Deported Homosexual: A Memoir of Nazi Terror. New York: Basic Books, 1995.